Broadcasters' group: Satellite merger deal sends lousy signal

David Hinckley
New York Daily News

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has leapt to the front of the pack in opposing the proposed merger of XM and Sirius Satellite Radio - and its first move is invoking the specter of Howard Stern.

The NAB, which represents traditional terrestrial broadcasters, has never liked satellite radio, which was created to compete with its member stations and which has none of the FCC content guidelines that others must follow.

But the NAB also doesn't trust satellite, which it feels doesn't play by the rules. The association complained bitterly when the satellite services began to carry traffic and weather reports from major cities, for instance, arguing that the satellite licenses specified they could only offer national programming.

Now the NAB points out that the original satellite licenses specifically required the two services to remain separate.

If the merger is going to be approved, the FCC will have to nullify that clause. XM and Sirius are expected to say that's OK because the audio landscape has options now that it didn't have in 1997 - Internet radio, iPods and so forth - and therefore programming diversity doesn't require competing satellite services.

The NAB says that's nonsense, and also argues that a single satellite-radio entity would have both performers and the audience at its mercy for content and pricing.

"Giving the government's history of opposing monopolies, NAB would be shocked if federal regulators permitted a merger of XM and Sirius," said a statement from Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president.

The association calls the proposal "a government bailout" and challenges the FCC by pushing a familiar radio button.

"Policymakers will have to weigh whether an industry that makes Howard Stern its poster child should be rewarded with a monopoly for offensive programming," said Wharton.

The months ahead will test the NAB's Washington clout, which is considerable, but this will be just one of many dramas swirling around this proposal.

One reason it was advanced now is that satellite people feel Republicans will be more sympathetic to a merger than Democrats, many of whom think there's been too much media consolidation already.

Republicans have a 3-2 majority on the FCC until January 2009, but should a Democrat win the White House in November 2008, those numbers would flip. By advancing the proposal now, the satellite companies allow a year for approval and hope it will be done before their plan gets caught up in election-year politics.

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